Maastricht claims from France a valuable prehistoric lizard fossil looted in the 18th century | Culture


Maastricht (in Spanish, Maastricht), the city in the south of the Netherlands that owes its name to the bridge built there by the Romans to cross the Meuse River, wants to recover a treasure. It is the fossilized skull of a mosasaur, an aquatic reptile that lived about 66 million years ago when the area surrounding the current city was covered by a warm, shallow sea. Found at the end of the 18th century, it was looted by French troops and has been exhibited since 1795 in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Now, the Dutch counterpart institution, the Maastricht Natural History Museum, which only keeps a plaster replica, wants the Government to officially demand its return from France. The City Council supports the idea and last Thursday a meeting took place at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to analyze the case. On the table is a possible restitution comparable to that applied to other historical pieces, whether from the colonial era or World War II.

The official name of this large prehistoric lizard is Mosasaurus hoffmanni. It is the first of its kind of several found in the south of the Netherlands, although they have also appeared in other places around the world. Measuring about 16 meters, it was discovered in October 1778 in some underground limestone quarries in the Maastricht area, originating from the remains of shells of marine animals. It belongs to the Maastrichtian period (71 to 66 million years ago), the last age of the Cretaceous, and was found on land owned by canon Theodorus Godding. Since the limestone mine tunnels where the fossil was extracted were under his house, he claimed it as his own. Once in his possession, he put it in a display case so that people could admire it. “Maastricht is in the Catholic part of the Netherlands and dinosaurs or mosasaurs do not appear in the Bible, of course. The one in question is essential because it represents the first part of what would later become the theory of the evolution of species,” explains John Jagt, curator of paleontology at the Museum of Natural History in the Dutch city, on the phone. In his opinion, this fossil is comparable “to what Tutankhamun means for archaeology.”

In Maastricht in the 18th century, the presence of the reptile could be explained by referring to the Great Flood, but when fossils appeared in other countries, “in a certain way it was like accepting that God could be fallible; that there was more than one flood.” “Hence the Mosasaurus led scientists to wonder if animals and plants could become extinct due to natural circumstances,” Jagt continues. Although the complete skeleton is not available, it is considered that the reptile had a body covered in scales, a relatively small brain and a dull tone on the back and lighter on the stomach. Their babies were born in the water and had to immediately come to the surface to breathe. How did they become extinct? “Having no enemies other than those of their own size or species, they suffered the domino effect of the rains of sulfuric acid and other debris that reached the sea after the cataclysm caused by the meteorite impact.” [en lo que ahora es la península del Yucatán] “That wiped out the dinosaurs.”

Engraving that recreates the discovery of the fossil in 1778, in a public domain image.
Engraving that recreates the discovery of the fossil in 1778, in a public domain image.

Spoils of war

At the end of 1794, Maastricht was captured by the French revolutionary army (the Revolution began in 1789), and there was already a precise plan to obtain the fossil. “France had stripped itself of all religious vestiges at that time and they had to get the mosasaur, of great scientific value,” says the curator. As it was believed to have been hidden somewhere in the city, legend says that up to 600 bottles of the best wine were offered as a reward to those who could find it. “Nothing. All that is a farce. They stole it. It was a spoil of war,” says Jagt. The fossilized skull was moved to Paris in 1794 and later declared a piece of national heritage. “There is documentary evidence that after Napoleon there was an opportunity for the Dutch to reclaim some of the things that were the product of the revolutionaries’ plunder, and several were recovered. “They forgot about the fossil or maybe they didn’t know.”

He Mosasaurus hoffmanni It is part of the canon of Natural History of the Netherlands, which remembers that the Maastrichtian period is the only division of the geological time scale that comes from this Dutch city. 2024 marks the 175th anniversary of the adoption of this meaning, and although Jagt prefers not to comment on the possible return of the fossil, he indicates that this type of restitution usually affects art. “It is a decision that is not up to scientists and many things can happen in the future.” At the moment, the fossilized skull of the Netherlands’ most famous mosasaur rests in a display case in Paris.

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